The new film The Dressmaker is based on a novel of the same name by Australian author Rosalie Ham. It was directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse who co-wrote the screenplay with husband P.J. Hogan. Described as a revenge comedy drama, the movie features an impressive cast that includes Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, and Liam Hemsworth. The Dressmaker includes an assortment of characters and themes all set against the rustic backdrop of a small outback town in 1950’s Australia.
Although revenge-themed movies have primarily been the domain of male protagonists (ie. Death Wish, Unforgiven), more recent flicks such as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series have succeeded in turning the tables on such cliches. While The Dressmaker doesn’t have nearly the death count or violence that permeated Kill Bill the film does feature a strong (and wronged) female lead character who’s hell bent on uncovering the truth and exacting revenge. Her return after years of exile is reminiscent of a classic western but instead of a grizzled gunslinger, viewers are treated to the sight of a well-dressed woman and her sewing machine.
Kate Winslet, who won an Oscar in 2009 for The Reader, is a strong and capable actress who makes for a perfect fit in the leading role of Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage in The Dressmaker. The film also features the talents of Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V For Vendetta), veteran Aussie actress Judy Davis (My Brilliant Career, A Passage to India), and Melbourne born Hunger Games alumni Liam Hemsworth.
The casting of Hemsworth as Winslet’s love interest, however, is somewhat puzzling due to the obvious, yet unacknowledged, age difference between the two leads. At one point in the film, for example, Teddy, Hemsworth’s character, ponders the reason why Myrtle has returned home. He jokingly surmises that she must’ve come back in order to be with him. Given their age difference and the fact that Myrtle left town at a young age it seems doubtful that these characters would’ve met as children. It’s also interesting to note that despite the feminist theme of The Dressmaker, several times within the course of the narrative, Teddy assures Myrtle that he will take care of her. This sentiment seems out of step with the rest of the film in which the central female character proves again and again that she is more than capable of speaking her mind and standing up for herself. The couple’s love affair is depicted as being more formulaic in nature as opposed to a genuine reflection of their characters feelings for one another.
The narrative of The Dressmaker is augmented by portrayals of a variety of odd characters including a cross dressing sheriff, a malicious school teacher, an abusive pharmacist, an addled recluse, and a damaged housewife, who hides behind her obsession for housecleaning as a means of coping with the death of her only child. Aside from the collection of unusual characters which populate the movie director, Moorhouse also provides The Dressmaker with a keenly unique sense of time and place. The isolated town located amidst the natural landscape of the Australian countryside is portrayed as a character unto itself in the film. The milieu serves not only to set the tone for the narrative but also transports viewers back to a distinct historical time and place.
Despite all the film’s positive elements, The Dressmaker isn’t without its flaws. Most strikingly, the continual fluctuation between its comedic and dramatic elements comes off as being contrived and forced. There also seems to be a glaring clash in terms of the movie’s central theme of revenge. On one hand, The Dressmaker strives to make the point that something as stereotypically feminine as fashion and style can be an effective agent for change (both aesthetically as well as in terms of attitude) and yet the film’s ending strongly contradicts this notion by emphasizing elements such as death and destruction.
Despite opening to mixed reviews in North America, The Dressmaker took home five awards at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including accolades for lead actress, supporting actor and actress, costume design, and the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Australian Film.
The Dressmaker is now playing in theatres.